Intelligences: Neo-platonic and Cartesian

October 8, 2005 | 30 comments
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“Intelligence” is one of those wonderfully ambiguous words in the scriptures. Consider two uses of the word: section 88 (also called “The Olive Branch”) and the Book of Abraham. In section 88, intelligence is identified with the light of truth that emanates forth from God and fills the immensity of space. There is definitely a neo-platonic feel to this image. At the very least, it associates intelligence with the influence of God and seems to conceptualize it in essentially creaturely terms. Intelligence is the glory of God in a very literal sense. It is part of the light of glory that he sheds forth.

In contrast, in the Book of Abraham, God shows Abraham the intelligences that were organized before the world was. Here (as well as in section 93) we have a view of intelligences as eternal, individuated souls much closer to the co-eternal spirits that Joseph taught about in the King Follett Discourse. If anything, these intelligences seem to resemble Cartesian egos — ethereally thinking and choosing persons. Of course, it is this view of the soul that is most often used to illustrate the radically different concept of God offered by Mormon theology, with theomorphic humanity and anthropomorphic deity, both existing in some sense at the same metaphysical level.

There is a tendency for those discussing Mormon theology from a philosophical perspective (a vanishingly small group to be sure) to speak as though the scriptures were considerably less equivocal than they are. Indeed, some LDS theologians have gone so far as to argue that Mormon theology consists of a wholesale rejection of platonic notions of God. The ambiguity of the very term often invoked by such claims, however, suggests that on this point the scriptures are considerably more complicated than the philosophers.

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30 Responses to Intelligences: Neo-platonic and Cartesian

  1. LisaB on October 8, 2005 at 7:21 pm

    Me! Me! Okay, I have nothing intellingent to say on this, but I REALLY like the question and look forward to reading the dialogue that ensues.

  2. J. Stapley on October 8, 2005 at 7:33 pm

    Now, I’m in way over my head, but it seems that the association of Nauvoo usage of intelligence to the notions of a Cartesian mind is a late 19th century revision. In the Nauvoo era, Joseph uses intelligence to denote two different concepts:

    1) an individual, whether exalted or premortal:

    I am right I might say God never had power to create the spirit of man, God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is Eternal & it is self exhisting, 47 All mind that is susseptible of improvement, the relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. God has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences…(Woodruf Diary, KFD)

    2) the intellectual/spiritual greatness of said individual:

    …Jesus Christ being the greater light or of more intelligence for he loved rituousness and hated iniquity he being the Elder Brother Presented himself for to come and redeem this world…(Laub report, KFD – see also Abraham 3:18)

    It seems to me that intelligence as a Cartesian mind is a semi-modern construct to mediate the conflict between an eternal existence and the idea of spirit birth.

    Now as to Section 88 (circa 1832) it is, I believe, a huge mistake to equate the usage of intelligence here with the later Nauvoo period. Really, it may very well be neo-platonic, which Ostler (pg. 59) hints at, but it doesn’t seem to have any bearing on our conceptions of preexistence.

  3. Clark on October 8, 2005 at 8:44 pm

    I think Mormons downplay neoPlatonic parallels too much – mainly due to the unfortunate image neoPlatonism got in its more transformed approach in Augustine and others. (Which really isn’t neoPlatonism)

    I think Brigham Young’s views are similar to neoPlatonism and even the BoA isn’t as different as you might think. (Connections between stars/planets and intelligences is far more neoPlatonic than Cartesian)

  4. Soyde River on October 8, 2005 at 9:24 pm

    You will find all these uses in the dictionary.

    Intelligence as the ability to learn or understand; to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment; mental acuteness, shrewdness; aptitude in grasping truth;

    Intelligence as the basic eternal qualities of Divine mind;

    Intelligence as an intelligent entity; angel; incorporeal being;

    Intelligence as the act of understanding, comprehension;

    Intelligence as information; etc.

    So: I am illuminated; therefore I am.

  5. sam brown on October 9, 2005 at 12:21 pm

    no politics this time.

    I’ve been reading a fascinating book, Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being, History of an Idea, and this has been my first careful exposure to this idea of a chain of being. Some people believe that the patriarchal order is a reflex of this idea; others feel that the PGP/Abraham multitude of existences is a reflex of it.

    The basic idea, which takes a long time to disentangle, is that Plato believed in something called the Good or the Idea of the Good. This entity, certainly non-corporeal, was held to be perfect. Not the perfect instance of the good, but that of which a perfect instance would be the instance.

    Because it was perfect (and here the reasoning gets complicated) a) it would never be envious of the existence of something else, and b) it excelled in self-sufficiency to such an extent, that in an imaginative if not entirely logical leap, it took self-sufficiency beyond the lack of dependency to the creation of dependencies upon itself. Thus creation occurred (whether by a demiurge that sounds vaguely like Abraham’s vision of Jehovah/Michael or otherwise depends on the philosopher) almost to prove that God would never envy anything and because, without needing to (this Good by definition could never need anything), the Good naturally created a system that depended on it like the sun shedding its rays on the earth.

    People then realized that the world is a complicated place with many hierarchical gradations of existence, with some overlap between the gradations (the favorite was Aristotle’s zoophyte, stuff like coral and seaweed and anemones that seem half plant/half animal). This hierarchy extended below humans (most of the natural world) AND above humans (angels, spirits, inhabitants of other worlds). By the arguments, God’s perfection required that everything be present, that everything that could exist to fill a niche in creation would be because (check this out) for God to have refused to create it would imply that he was envious of its existence.

    This system provided something of a theodicy as well. The argument goes that even something that is evil or ugly is created because it is part of the chain of being which would be diminished by its absence. One way to get evil created from the good is to argue that it is necessary in the balance of the created world. One example they used is carnivores—why would God create something that ate another of God’s creations?

    This system heated up during the gallileo/Copernicus controversy, when other populated worlds (and indeed the system of celestial bodies) was advanced as scientific fact, supported by the Chain of Being.

    Later the system was used to justify dominion of one culture over another—Indians and African Americans were seen to be lower on the Scale of Being, thus logical objects of domination.

    It was still present and recognized in the time of Joseph Smith among Protestants. At that point, aside from the complexity of racism, it was used, as far as I’ve been able to tell, to provide people a meaningful reference regarding their place in the world. No matter how small we feel, we are in fact a part of the great chain of being that extends via the angels up to God. Our specific place in creation is intensely meaningful.

    That’s what I’ve been able to figure out. As far as the Mormon overtones, I see a couple.

    First, the “laws of the universe” (complexly related to the DC 88 intelligence of God) sound an awful lot like Plato’s Idea of the Good. It is those laws that stipulate the course of God’s creative activity, just as they guide the demiurge or the creative impulse in neoplatonism.

    Second, and this is NOT a straightforward analogy, each human being in Mormonism has an idea/ideal standing behind them in the upper perfect world. It is the intelligence which has been embodied for mortal experience. Plato had these ideals existing, as far as I can tell, as a species exemplar. On Platonic reasoning, this would probably be an Adam (whose name even just means “man”), of which we are all specific instances (could this be some of what was implied in this “Adam-God” stuff?).

    Third, the great chain of being appears to have been altered by JSJ to become a genealogical tree. For neoplatonic/mainstream chain of being, we are related to angels only by token of fitting in a descending hierarchy of perfection. They are not our grandparents, they are our lords. For Joseph Smith, this chain exists (and serves the same emotional need), but the angels are our grandparents as well as being our lords (I’m using lord in a feudal throwback, not LORD, and with this comment I have in mind the idea of different, nested priesthood stewardships described in Joseph Smith’s writings). I’m not saying that JSJ was twisting the great chain of being, I’m just saying that one way to understand the vast network of eternal family that he revealed is as related conceptually to the great chain.

    Fourth, JSJ did preach that everything has a spirit, even the earth and trees and animals. Bearing in mind my second point that neoplatonists had in mind a species exemplar rather than a spirit for each, there is some apparent conceptual overlap.

    Finally, all those worlds full of other organisms is almost verbatim the same as the astronomical neoplatonist argument that God would not have created an empty Universe because what does that prove? Brigham Young’s apparent speculation that Adam and Eve may have been transferred from another existence could be interpreted in that light (though neither the speculation nor its explanation are required).

    Sorry this was so long. Most of the background I got from the Lovejoy book which is a fascinating read. The Mormon stuff is from my own research.

    Sam

  6. Marc Bohn on October 9, 2005 at 5:30 pm

    This is completely off topic… but I haven’t seen anything posted on it just yet. The cover story of the next issue of Newsweek is dedicated to the Church: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/9630255/site/newsweek/

  7. J. Stapley on October 9, 2005 at 5:53 pm

    Fourth, JSJ did preach that everything has a spirit, even the earth and trees and animals.

    While this can be inferred from some of Joseph Smith’s teachings and there is no question that some of the early members both believed and tought this, I’m not familiar with teachings of Joseph Smith directly advocating the concept. Please furnish the references if I am mistaken.

    Marc Bohn, Both M* and the Bloggernacle Times have posts on the Newsweek article.

  8. David Clark on October 9, 2005 at 11:59 pm

    Does anyone know of any Mormons who do/study/research philosophy of mind? I ask this because the topic of intelligence(s) interests me and seems that if one is going to think about this philosophically, philosophy of mind would be a logical place to start. I have never found one but that may be perhaps because this “vanishingly small group to be sure” is just too small to hold people interested in philosophy of mind.

    Also, please let me know if they are analytically inclined. I have nothing against continental style philosophy, it’s just not my cup of tea.

    Oh, Hi Nate. I lived across the hall from you freshman year at the Y. I hope you are enjoying your time as a big shot lawyer in the den of thieves known as K street. I for one am enjoying myself in the alternate reality of California where everyone’s an actor, even the governor.

  9. Mark Butler on October 10, 2005 at 3:33 am

    J. Stapley, Doesn’t Moses 7:48 teach as much (with respect to the earth)?

  10. Kurt on October 10, 2005 at 8:02 am

    In contrast, in the Book of Abraham, God shows Abraham the intelligences that were organized before the world was. Here (as well as in section 93) we have a view of intelligences as eternal, individuated souls much closer to the co-eternal spirits that Joseph taught about in the King Follett Discourse.

    D&C 93 does not talk about intelligence in the sense of a spirit at all, as does PofGP Abr. 3. D&C 93 plainly calls “intelligence” the “light of truth”, “light and truth”, and commands us to bring up our children in it. The D&C 93 usage agrees with the D&C 88 usage. People think D&C 93 talks about spirits because of 93:29, which they think equates the two, but this is a mistaken reading. D&C 93:29 does not equate the two things at all, as the first sentence in the verse is the rhetorical parallel to v. 23 (just as v. 21-22 & v. 26c-28 are rhetorical parallels), and the second sentence in the verse segues to the next subject, which is comprised of v. 29b-36. This type of “intelligence” is the same as that reflected in the NT Greek epiginosko, a participatory knowledge, the same knowledge by association spoken of in the OT as essential for “knowing God”. This is in contrast to intellectual knowledge, the type characterized by Greek ginosko. This is why “intelligence” is the “light of truth”, it is people doing that which is true and showing it forth wisdom by their works, the city on the hill, what Zion is supposed to be.

    Smith, in the KFD, does not teach that spirits are co-eternal with God, in the sense they are uncreated and have always existed. That is a long perpetuated misunderstanding of the text fostered by obscure usage of now archaic terms like “principle”. This was discussed here, with links to the best available text are found at the bottom. Smith does teach that created things can become eternal.

    Smith didnt coin the term “intelligences” with respect to spirit personages, thats something that was around well before him. I dont know what the earliest appearance is, not having an OED on hand, but Milton used the term in _Paradise Lost_ referring to spirit persons, and that was published in the mid 1600s.

    I dont see any equivocation in the usage of the terms at all with respect to the Scriptures. Whether some philosophers do or not…

  11. J. Stapley on October 10, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    Mark Butler: J. Stapley, Doesn’t Moses 7:48 teach as much (with respect to the earth)?

    I may be in the minority here, but I really am not ready to accept that the earth is sensient. It is a beautiful passage of scripture, and the Lord communicates a heap of insite through the revelation, but the most logical exigesis is that it is symbollic and not literal.

    Kurt: Smith, in the KFD, does not teach that spirits are co-eternal with God, in the sense they are uncreated and have always existed.

    ummmm…yes it does. Yours and Jeffrey’s exchange over at Nine Moons was pretty strait forward in that you simply reject the public discourses of the Prophet. That is fine if you want to go with a scripture-only formulation of doctrine. If you do that, however, you basically have to jetison all Mormon beliefs on Exaltation and the Godhead.

  12. J. Stapley on October 10, 2005 at 12:33 pm

    …okay, maybe not all Mormon beliefs, but a lot of them.

  13. Kurt on October 10, 2005 at 1:54 pm

    J.Stapley,

    Um, no it doesnt, and no I dont. I do not wholesale reject public discourses of the Prophet. I rejected Jeffrey’s typical interpretation of the KFD, and suggested people get the best textual source and pick up a dictionary. If they do so they will discover that Smith was not forwarding the view that human spirits are uncreated.

  14. J. Stapley on October 10, 2005 at 2:07 pm

    Then I am quite confused by your exchange with Jeffrey. What would you consider the best textual sources to be? The Words of Joseph Smith?

  15. Kurt on October 10, 2005 at 2:10 pm

    See the links povided at the bottom of the nine moons thread.

  16. J. Stapley on October 10, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    I dissagree with your approach. That 1978 amalgamation does not consider the George Laub account. Moreover, it takes substantial liberties. I think the best texts remains the source documents.

    I also think that Joseph’s 16 June 1844 (1) (Sunday Morning); Grove East of Temple discourse is important.

  17. Kurt on October 10, 2005 at 2:46 pm

    Regardless of the text you pick as your favorite, the fact is that careful examination of the words Smith uses shows he is not presenting human spirits as uncreated.

  18. J. Stapley on October 10, 2005 at 3:44 pm

    …God never had power to create the spirit of man, God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is Eternal & it is self exhisting (Woodruff Diary, KFD)

    God never had power to create the Sp[irit] of Man at all— it is ne God himself co[uld] not create himself—intelligence is self existent it is a sp[irit] from age to end & there is no creatn ab[out] it (Thomas Bullock Report, KFD)

    Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal and yet have a beginning because if a spirit have a beginning it will have an end—good logic—illustrated by his ring. All the fools learned & wise men that comes and tells that man has a beginning proves that he must have an end and if that doctrine is true then the doctrine of annihilation is true. But if I am right then I might be bold to say that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himself—Intelligence exists upon a selfexistent principle—is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it (William Clayton, KFD)

    God never had power to create the spirit of man nteligence exist upon a self existent principle no creation about it. (Willard Richards, KFD)

  19. Kurt on October 10, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    J.Stapley,

    Thanks for posting 4 version of the same thing, which show pretty plainly the need for amalgamating the text, of which the link I provided is the best available text.

    Lets take a look at the meaning of the word “principle”, the one we are interested in is number 6, found below (taken from the first entry of dictionary.refrence.com:

    prin·ci·ple Audio pronunciation of “principle” ( P ) Pronunciation Key (prns-pl) n.

    1. A basic truth, law, or assumption: the principles of democracy.
    2.
    1. A rule or standard, especially of good behavior: a man of principle.
    2. The collectivity of moral or ethical standards or judgments: a decision based on principle rather than expediency.
    3. A fixed or predetermined policy or mode of action.
    4. A basic or essential quality or element determining intrinsic nature or characteristic behavior: the principle of self-preservation.
    5. A rule or law concerning the functioning of natural phenomena or mechanical processes: the principle of jet propulsion.
    6. Chemistry. One of the elements that compose a substance, especially one that gives some special quality or effect.
    7. A basic source.

    If you read the surrounding text to the quotes provided above (see page 10-11 of the amalgamated text) its plain Smith is arguing that God did not create element (i.e. phsyical matter) or intelligence (i.e., spirit matter) but He organized it. On page 11 it says plainly that Adam’s spirit was created before it was placed into his earthly tabernacle.

    Smith is saying the principles, per definition 6 above, are what is uncreated, not the things composed thereof (i.e., physical bodies and spirit bodies). Go read it.

  20. J. Stapley on October 10, 2005 at 5:00 pm

    While one could make these assertions it is far from enequivical. You have to make the assumptions of definition (6), then then you have to strip every article from befor spirit in every account. This is why amalgamation is poor. There are many witnesses that agree that the articles are there.

    Joseph did not say “if spirit has a beginging, it will have an end” he said, “If a spirit has a beginging…” As Jeffrey stated at Nine Moons, Joseph used the ring analogy several times to further the point. Joseph stated, by the accounts of many witness, that “the spirit of man” is not created.

  21. Kurt Neumiller on October 10, 2005 at 9:17 pm

    The ring analogy only means what you and Jeffrey think it means when you strip it from the surrounding context. Taken in context, it is plain Smith is referring to the nature of uncreatedness that is inherint in the element or intelligence and not the spirit or temporal body itself. Its says right in the very text that Adam’s spirit is created, or would you rather ignore that bit of text?

  22. sam b on October 10, 2005 at 9:45 pm

    Seems that this is a tricky point on a tricky text. It’s not clear to me that either view has unequivocal textual support, though I agree with Stapley personally.

    Smith writes some about the necessity of “fundamental parts” being exclusively committed to a single physical body (Faulring 355), and that the particular association of particles (seems reasonable to equate this with the “principles” of KFD) will be perpetuated through the afterlife. KFD is, after all, a funeral sermon, and one key portion of the sermon is the reassurance that humans and their relationships (particularly with God but also with each other) will be eternally conserved. That was the hopeful message that militated against the theocentric heaven of the Puritans and older church traditions, both Catholic and Protestant. I hear in KFD JSJ reassuring his listeners that when they get to heaven they won’t dissolve into a worshipful mass without independent identity. Why not? Because their particular assembly of eternal principles is itself eternal. Their identity is eternal.

    I think he is also (he even mentions the self-sufficiency argument by name) responding to this idea that God somehow exists apart from his creation (which was a core component of the neoplatonic argument he thereby appears to be rejecting). Oh no, he seems to say, God is not separate from his creation, for his creation is a mere shepherding of his peers, this idea of BARA as organization instead of creation.

    I also think that its’ reasonable to attempt to interpret individual portions of the sermon within the overall arc. The arc suggests that humans can become Gods, that their identities are eternal, that a creation with a clear beginning (the ex nihilo of the self-sufficient origin of existence) is false, that God was human. This all pushes toward an equality of entities that would go along with the standard coeternal interpretation.

    I wonder whether we can interpret the creation described as indicating a genealogical association without the strict sense of separate creation. all spirits are placed into a given relationship (parental) with God.

    Does the reference to the creation of Adam’s spirit attempt to explain that what we think of as creation is actually the union of spirit and body and in fact the spirit (“created before”) existed before God’s act of “creation” which had less to do with de novo creation than some sort of sheperding or the establishment of some sort of relational association?

    At the core, I think JSJ’s writings and KFD as well suggest an incredible devotion to the idea that the integrity of human identity is unassailable and in some key sense uncreate. That ultimately is why I lean toward the traditional “coequal/coeternal” idea.

  23. Clark on October 10, 2005 at 10:28 pm

    I tend to favor the separation of intelligent “stuff” from spirits, although I recognize that the pre-Utah terminology is ambiguous as several articles have pointed out. Nonetheless I think the spirit/intelligence separation can be seen as a strong reading the Nauvoo. I also think it significant that everyone pretty much took it that way in Utah – including all those who were in the inner circle and who differed amongst each other over other topics. (i.e. it seems this was a point both Pratt and Young agreed upon)

    I also think the context is important, as Kurt points out. That’s not to deny the ambiguity. But it seems to me those pushing the ambiguity most also tend to downplay as much as possible later understanding as offering even at best weak evidence to understanding earlier events.

  24. J. Stapley on October 10, 2005 at 11:36 pm

    Clark, I think that you are correct that the strongest evidence that the spirit of man is not eternal is the divergetn pesrpectives of those who went to Utah. The classic case is the Pratt/Young debate. They were very divergent, yet both agreed with a literal spirit birth.

    I’m not so sure though that this was a function of Smith’s ideas on creation or whether it was the work of the powerful concept of Heavenly Mother. How can you have a Heavenly Mother and Father without literal spirit birth? Well, I have my ideas, but it is understandable that this concept might trump.

  25. Kurt on October 11, 2005 at 6:31 am

    Overall, its a problematic text, and the individual reader has to decide what means of dealing with the text they are going to choose, otherwise its impossible. Stapley has decided he wants to deal with the more fragmentary bits, and I have decided I want to deal with the best available amalgamated version.

    With regard to the matter of whether Smith’s view of “eternal” and “uncreated” was the same as ours, ours being more heavily influenced by philosophical notions of “uncreated”, please recall Smith said the sun was eternal, as pointed out back in that 9M thread. Now, we today, with our modern view of astrophysics would never call the sun eternal, but Smith clearly had no concept of our modern astrophysics as presently constituted (he certainly would have loved APOD). So, we must determine, in context, what Smith was trying to convey to his audience. And I generally agree with sam b’s attempt above, in principle, if not in particular points of fact. Smith’s intent, at its most fundamental, was to argue the spirit does not die when the mortal body does, because spirits cannot die. I dont think anyone will disagree with that. Pretty much anything substantive after that is up for argument.

  26. greenfrog on October 12, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    …JSJ did preach that everything has a spirit, even the earth and trees and animals.

    While this can be inferred from some of Joseph Smith’s teachings and there is no question that some of the early members both believed and tought this, I’m not familiar with teachings of Joseph Smith directly advocating the concept. Please furnish the references if I am mistaken.

    Another place to start:

    Moses 3: 9
    9 And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul.

    I may be in the minority here, but I really am not ready to accept that the earth is sensient. It is a beautiful passage of scripture, and the Lord communicates a heap of insite through the revelation, but the most logical exigesis is that it is symbollic and not literal.

    Perhaps the defect is less in the text’s conformity or lack of conformity to a symbolic vs. literal dichotomy and more with the weakness of the dichotomous construct?

  27. greenfrog on October 12, 2005 at 1:36 pm

    I botched the html tags in that one. The Moses scripture in italics is not intended to include the subsequent statement by J.Stapley.

  28. Adam Greenwood on October 12, 2005 at 2:05 pm

    “How can you have a Heavenly Mother and Father without literal spirit birth? Well, I have my ideas”

    One is curious.

  29. Kevin Winters on October 17, 2005 at 10:54 am

    David Clark: “Does anyone know of any Mormons who do/study/research philosophy of mind?”

    I am hoping to do more work in it, but currently I’m just a lowly undergrad trying to get into graduate school. I know Blake Ostler has done some work in this, as has Mark Wrathall. That might be a place to start. You might also be able to look into Richard Williams, an LDS psychologist, who has written some on this.

  30. annegb on October 17, 2005 at 12:27 pm

    Yes, this one is curious, as well. Extrapolate, please.